Ross Douthat’s real message: ‘Faith without works is dead’

Matt K. Lewis Senior Contributor
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New York Times columnist Ross Douthat has penned an interesting and thought-provoking column on liberal Christianity.

But I suspect many will miss his fundamental point — that modern Christianity must include both faith and works — that it should encompass a sincere theological belief (in such things as the virgin birth, resurrection, authenticity of miracles, etc.), while simultaneously calling on its adherents to help the poor and feed the hungry.

Here is Douthat’s nut graph:

The defining idea of liberal Christianity — that faith should spur social reform as well as personal conversion — has been an immensely positive force in our national life. No one should wish for its extinction, or for a world where Christianity becomes the exclusive property of the political right. What should be wished for, instead, is that liberal Christianity recovers a religious reason for its own existence.

At the macro level, the notion of a large population of Americans who reject Christianity’s miraculous claims, while embracing tenets such as the golden rule, etc., sounds appealing. But it’s not practical. Humans have an innate need for purpose.

Religion, minus the mysticism, doesn’t seem to work (for most people) — which might explain liberal Christianity’s dramatic decline in recent decades.

That is because faith and works are, by definition, core elements of the Christian experience. And right up through the civil rights movement, this marriage sparked social change.

One of my favorite writings on the subject comes from Eric Metaxas, who authored a book on William Wilberforce, the British Parliamentarian who, after experiencing a religious conversion, dedicated his life to ending the slave trade and eventually outlawing slavery.

As Metaxas notes, during Wilberforce’s day,

The secularism of the elites had over the course of the 18th century quite overrun the country, and though most people still went to church, almost no one really believed the Bible or the basic tenets of the faith. Most of the clergy didn’t believe it themselves, and from their pulpits were chirrupping mainly about Enlightenment deism and rationalism, and “preaching” a tepid status-quo moralism. And the culture, having drawn back from anything resembling a robust Christian faith, was suffering terribly. The elites set the extraordinarily low cultural standards, being as hedonistic and selfish as anything we can imagine outside Versailles; they gave nothing to the poor and did nothing to help them. As far as they were concerned, the poor deserved to be poor, and they deserved to be rich. End of discussion. The effect of this was incalculable, and throughout the whole of the 18th century extreme poverty and social chaos held sway, complete with public displays of animal cruelty, epidemic alcoholism among all classes, and every other kind of social horror. One contemporary statistic paints the grim picture: 25 percent of all single women in London were prostitutes. Their average age was sixteen.

Still, despite these longest of odds Wilberforce and his devout friends – what we today call the Clapham Circle – somehow succeeded in radically changing the cultural conversation and climate over a few decades. By Wilberforce’s death in 1833, they had managed to bring a Christian worldview into the cultural mainstream for the first time in modern history. To say that it was miraculous is merely to know the details. And they did it, as we have said, by showing their faith through works, and by moving principally in culturally elite circles, as we shall see…

Metaxas continues,

What began as a war against the slave trade became a war against every other social ill: from the treatment of prisoners, to child labor, to caring for orphans, to epidemic alcoholism, to prostitution, to illiteracy among the poor, to public spectacles of animal cruelty, and everything in between. When Wilberforce began his career in Parliament, the idea of helping the poor was virtually unheard of, but a few decades later he and his friends had effectively launched the Victorian era, a time when helping the poor and fighting social injustice were the cultural norm, as they are today. By the time he died in 1833, Wilberforce’s goal “to make goodness fashionable” had succeeded beyond anything he could have dreamt. The fashion leapt across the Atlantic, too, and just as in Britain, societies to do good bloomed across America and have flourished ever since. To do: Change the world. Check.

Read the whole thing here.

Matt K. Lewis